A profile of grants in support of diversity

A profile of The Law Foundation of Ontario grantees whose unique work responds to the needs of our diverse society.
November 1, 2013

A profile of grants in support of diversity

A profile of The Law Foundation of Ontario grantees whose unique work responds to the needs of our diverse society

Recent population statistics support what the Foundation has heard anecdotally for years: communities everywhere in Ontario are experiencing an influx of newcomers from all over the world. It used to be that border cities and Toronto were the main destinations for newcomers, but that is changing, as is the profile of locations that newcomers are coming from.

In some quarters, the topic of “diversity” has become so prevalent as to risk becoming almost commonplace. Many workplaces and communities have made a concerted commitment to embrace diversity and to find ways to accommodate differences respectfully. Training services abound. Free online translation services abound. Diversity recognition awards abound.

Yet this matter of “diversity” has complexities and nuances that may still not be fully appreciated. The three grant projects profiled below illustrate some of the less frequently recognized aspects of diversity as it relates to law and the legal profession.


Diversity within diversity

In 2008, the Foundation provided five years of modest seed funding to the Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Ontario (AJEFO) to start the Concentration en Justice! program. This program, modelled on the Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) program at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law (which the Foundation also supports), offers specialized programming for francophone high school students in Ottawa. The programming integrates law content with the regular curriculum and offers additional activities, such as special workshops and outings with some of the 45 volunteers drawn primarily from the Ottawa bar and bench.

A key goal of the Concentration program is to encourage more francophone students to pursue careers in the justice sector so that the justice system will have a sufficient proportion of francophone personnel to provide important justice sector services. So far, the Concentration program has succeeded in attracting and retaining both students and volunteers, although it is too early to tell yet whether these students will go on to legal careers.

However, the early days have prompted the AJEFO staff and board to start thinking differently about the community they were established in 1980 to serve. At that time, the discussion about language rights had a relatively clearly defined focus on the right of French-speaking Canadians to access key public services in their first language.

In 2012, the needs of French-speaking people in Canada are not nearly as clearly defined as they were 30 years ago. Francophone immigrants in Ottawa now include people from several of the 21 countries in Africa where French is the official language (which is 72% of all African countries). Not only does the French language vary significantly between countries (Cameroonian French is not the same as Parisian French and both are different from Canadian French), but the associated cultural values are even more divergent.

The effect of this on AJEFO and the Concentration program has been noticeable. The Concentration program is not a transposition of the English LAWS program in Toronto onto francophone communities. Rather, the Concentration program has created its own modules and materials to fit its unique requirements. Both LAWS and Concentration foster open-minded, respectful discussions among the students about the social values that underlie Canadian law; among other differences, the Concentration program also encourages students to discuss how Canadian values may differ from other French-speaking cultures, and how those differences could or should be reconciled.

Danielle Manton, the Executive Director of AJEFO, observes that francophone students’ discussions are much richer as a direct result of their own diverse composition – they are interested in learning about other cultures and their underlying values, and their respectful discussions in the classroom lead them all to a deeper understanding of Canadian law. At the same time, outside the classroom, observation of students’ voluntary seating groups in the school cafeteria suggests that students may self-segregate based on their culture of origin. A brief observation doesn’t provide sufficient information to even speculate about possible correlations between these two phenomena, but certainly gives pause for thought.

On seeing the dramatic demographic changes of the francophone community, the AJEFO board has decided to start a process of reflection on the definition of “francophone” and the implications of a revised definition for its mandate and services.

Translation complexity

Even if accommodating diversity was just about translation, when it comes to legal matters, translation is more than a simple exercise in matching words between languages, as was demonstrated by the volunteers working on the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (FACL) project called “Bridge the Gap”. The aim of the Bridge project was to create a set of basic informational videos on three areas of law, then translate them into seven languages (found on FACL’s website,, and on YouTube at

FACL undertook a complex, multi-step process that involved many volunteers from FACL’s member lawyers and volunteer language experts. Once the initial legal research was completed, they created storyboards to enable the production team to begin working on the videos while the scripts were fleshed out in English. The first stage of “translation” was not to translate the script to the alternate language but to translate into English plain language, in recognition of the first challenge, which is that while lawyers have well-developed legal expertise, the ability to communicate in plain language is, in fact, a different area of expertise.

The second stage of translation was to send the plain language script to volunteer language experts for translation into the alternate language, with the specific instruction to provide a plain-language translation, not just a literal translation. The language experts also had differences of views on the suitability of word choices, independent of the lawyers’ concerns to assure accuracy of the legal information. So, throughout the project, FACL ensured that everything was reviewed by more than one language expert to ensure clarity and consistency.

Further challenges arose at the audio recording stage. For example, all languages change over time, but some can change faster than others. Such differences arose during the translation to Tagalog, which has integrated many English words. A translator helping with the audio recording raised questions about the original translation of the written script, advising that language usage had changed and that certain wording choices suitable for the written form were no longer as suitable for the spoken word. Working with more than one language expert on each script increased their chances of identifying potential misunderstandings and choosing the best translation. In many instances, the final wording choices had to be resolved through extensive discussion between the language experts, as well as between them and the volunteer lawyers.

In other instances, where the alternate language had no corresponding word or phrase, the solution usually arrived at was to insert the English word in brackets and then expand the verbal script to include a longer explanation. For example, the closest word in Vietnamese for “adjudicator” is “judge”, so extra dialogue was included to explain the difference between an adjudicator and a judge. The Korean language has no equivalent to “sexual orientation” so the Korean video had to accommodate more time to include a longer audio explanation.

Although the resolution of all translation issues delayed the completion of the videos, FACL’s commitment to listening and understanding resulted in higher quality results, which in turn will mean improved assistance to those who do not speak English or French but who very much need to understand some basic rights and procedures in the Canadian justice system.

Role models and stereotypes

The Ontario Justice Education Network/Réseau Ontarien d’éducation juridique (OJEN/ROEJ) offers an immense array of programs to encourage youth to understand and think about law. Along the way, students learn to recognize stereotypes and to understand how stereotypes influence their attitudes and behaviours. Interestingly, OJEN observes that students’ stereotypes of the legal profession often combine socio-economic factors with physical characteristics.

Something that started out as a simple icebreaker for a group of high school students triggered such an unexpected response that OJEN grew the idea into a full-blown exercise called “My Personal Journey to a Career in Law”. In it, three volunteer women lawyers meet with a group of female high school students; the students are given a collection of disassociated facts about the volunteer lawyers and asked to match each fact to each panel member.  For example, the list of facts could include statements like “My father is a trucker,” “I speak five languages,” “I won the Ontario high school tennis championship” and “I worked as a janitor before I went to law school”.  The volunteer lawyers represent a range of ages and cultural backgrounds – a young Black-Canadian, a middle-aged Latina and a Francophone.

Invariably, the students assign the facts based on stereotypes that they were unaware they held, i.e. negative stereotypes that correlate certain socio-economic backgrounds with certain cultural backgrounds and career choices. Students are amazed to discover their own biases and are wide-eyed to meet for the first time “a lawyer who looks like me.”

The encouraging news is that the students are often receptive to the discovery that they hold more stereotypes than they realized and are open to re-thinking their ideas. Even more encouraging, they can quickly recognize how their attitudes and actions towards themselves and their classmates have been influenced by stereotypes they didn’t recognize and talk about how they should change their actions or set higher personal goals. And so, slowly, one student at a time, OJEN helps to dispel stereotypes about culture and about the legal profession.

On a more personal note, Mara Clarke, OJEN’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, comments that learning to recognize how her own attitudes limited her self-confidence was key to helping her overcome the disempowering effect of racism. In the absence of a strong professional role model, she thought that her magna cum laude undergraduate degree would not be sufficient to get her into a top law school, so she only applied to schools that offered a special admissions track for racialized groups. It is only in hindsight that she is able to realize that she limited herself unnecessarily. However, without strong role models, reaching that realization can take many years longer than necessary for some and those may be the very ones who are well-served by targeted strategies like special university admissions tracks.

Cultural values or personal values, or both?

Mara Clarke has also come to some thoughtful conclusions as to what she can do in the face of discrimination: “If someone is discriminating against me because of the colour of my skin, I can’t change my skin. However, what I can do is to consider whether the cause of an issue is actually something within my control.” She goes on to give a comparative example of working in a private sector environment where her offer to help a colleague by delivering some flyers was discouraged by another colleague on the ground that she shouldn’t demean herself by doing “menial” work. The discouraging comment from the colleague could have been prompted by a good intention to help Mara combat racial stereotype, or it could have been based on an elitist view of the legal profession, or it could have been based on a simple business calculus that says lawyers’ time is too expensive for unskilled tasks. Rather than choosing to assume that the comment reflected racial stereotyping (despite good intentions), Mara chose to consider the comment to be an indication of a difference between her personal values and corporate values. So the solution that she found was to move herself into an organizational culture that accorded better with her personal values. In a shoe-string non-profit environment, her offer to help with such a task is viewed as valued teamwork not as something to be discouraged. The added bonus of working for OJEN/ROEJ’s unique mandate is that it enables her to engage in targeted initiatives that counteract negative stereotypes within and about the legal profession.

What are the lessons?

These stories barely scratch the surface of diversity questions and challenges. The Foundation does not pretend to have the answers but we can offer one lesson: we can learn a lot from our grantees. We encourage you to connect directly with them to listen to their stories. We know that you will be as fascinated and impressed by their insights and compassion.